Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 09/06/10 06:44:22

"Viva Machete!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I drove up to the theater with '80s hair metal blaring on my car stereo. It helped me get in the mood for "Machete," an '80s throwback if there ever was one; instead of a fancy 20th Century-Fox logo celebrating the studio's 75 years, it should be preceded by the logo for Cannon Films or Vestron Video.

If you're familiar with those two names, Machete may be for you. It emerges from co-director Robert Rodriguez' fake trailer from Grindhouse, the pulp diptych he created with Quentin Tarantino; apparently having run out of movies to remake, Hollywood is now making actual movies based on trailers for nonexistent movies. (Hobo with a Shotgun, based on another fake trailer that won a Grindhouse contest, is also coming soon to a plex near you.)

Rodriguez' half of Grindhouse, Planet Terror, reiterated the cheerfully derivative Austinite's devotion to John Carpenter flicks; Machete, though, is a much better Carpenter tribute, complete with a scowling anti-hero -- Machete Cortez (Cortez the killer?), an ex-federale played by fanboy favorite Danny Trejo with a lifer's scowl and a tender spot for the ladies. Trejo, who turned 66 in May, has always looked older than his years; now he seems to have caught up, though he still looks hardier than his co-star Robert De Niro, who's only a year older. De Niro, as a corrupt senator running on an anti-immigrant platform, is in his I'm-in-it-for-the-laughs mode; most of the other performers follow his lead.

So does Rodriguez (and his credited co-director Ethan Maniquis), who as usual wears a hundred hats: co-writer, co-editor, co-producer, and even co-composer (as guitarist for his band Chingon, who perform the excellent score; if you want to know why people download things illegally, you might want to ask why a Machete soundtrack isn't commercially available -- I'll have to content myself with Chingon's album Mexican Spaghetti Western.) Machete feels like a party; its hero may be driven by vengeful rage, but Rodriguez treats that as an opportunity to revel in unapologetic schlock. That's his strength as well as his weakness; he'll never make his Schindler's List, but he'll never make his Amistad either.

Everything in Rodriguez' universe is filtered through junk movies and comic books; he loves women, but he loves them more when they're scantily clad and packing heat. Michelle Rodriguez (no relation), as a liberator running a taco stand as cover, gets to ground her usual sullen demeanor in kindness, a strange mix that pays off; Lindsay Lohan shows up and gets to parody and exorcise her drugs 'n' daddy issues; Jessica Alba tries hard as an immigration officer who sees the light, but the role would've been better served by Salma Hayek (who, at 44, would've been more credible, and more fiery). Rodriguez also takes a page from his buddy Tarantino and hands out plum roles to guys who haven't been working much lately: Jeff Fahey (a standout), Don Johnson, even Steven Seagal, who manages to wrest smug comedy out of his drug-kingpin role.

The movie is too loose and fun-loving to treat its political theme with any sting, much less any seriousness, but a lot of the old exploitation flicks (particularly blaxploitation) used to muster a passing nod to current events before getting to the good stuff. "Machete," which stands foursquare against the bigots, is pretty damn fine Mexploitation; luckily, Rodriguez is on the right side of the border between preachy and entertainingly trashy.

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